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Skepticism and Atheism – An Open Relationship

There seems to be an interesting series of comments flying around the info-sphere regarding the relationship between Atheism and Skepticism. I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on either one, so I’m just going to give my two cents here, and hopefully the discussion will be productive. I realize I’m taking a Ginsu knife to the can of worms, here… but that’s kind of what I do. My question here is not, “Should Atheism be a part of Skepticism?” I think it’s fairly obvious that it should, though I wouldn’t make it a requirement, since not all Skeptics are Atheists and vice-versa . My question is, “Should Atheism be the focus of Skepticism?”

First, I want to talk for a second about my own takes on both Atheism and Skepticism. What does each one mean to me, and how do I use each one of them in my daily life?

Let’s start with Atheism. Atheism has been defined many ways, and I’m sure there are those who will disagree with my definition, but I define it as a lack of belief in the existence of a god. How does Atheism inform my daily world view? How do I make decisions from an Atheist viewpont? How do I choose to treat others based on my Atheism? How do I live my life according to Atheism? The short answer is: I don’t.

Atheism has no place in my decision making process. I am an Atheist because I do not believe that there is a ‘god’. There are a multitude of reasons to be nice to people, or to make certain decisions, but the absence of a god isn’t one of them. Good decisions and bad decisions are irrespective of my lack of belief in a god. The only relevance that Atheism has on my life, is that I have one less variable to consider in my decision making process, that being “How does ‘god’ want me to act?” And wow, talk about a variable. Not only would that depend on my particular flavor of religion, but on my own personal views of what ‘god’ wanted. So no, I don’t consider my Atheism anywhere outside of a religious discussion.

Skepticism, though, is an all-together different matter. Skepticism is the process of applying critical thinking skills to, well, just about everything. Note that in this case, I’m talking about scientific skepticism, and not philosophical skepticism, which are quite different, in my opinion. I would encourage the study of both, but please don’t get the two of them confused.

I live in a skeptical frame of mind. I apply it to everything. Being in the IT world helps, where troubleshooting and experimentation are part of my daily course of events. Determining where the faults are in a complex system takes an analytical touch, and my training as an IT professional and a skeptic tend to compliment one another quite well. In fact, I find examples of places where skepticism serves me, just about everywhere. Grocery shopping, reading the news, studying for tests, talking with others, being a parent… there’s no limit to the things that skepticism can inform and benefit.

Here’s the crux of my argument. Skepticism is applied critical thinking. However, to apply something is a choice. You can certainly choose not to apply critical thinking if you don’t want to, and ‘go with your gut’. I do this a lot. You have to have some training or ability to think critically about things. How much training does it take to be an Atheist? How much research does one have to do in order to say, “I don’t believe in god.’ None. In fact, it is entirely possible to be an Atheist, yet accept all manner of thinks which most skeptics would otherwise eschew. Likewise, there are many scientists who practice scientific skepticism in the lab, yet attend church on Sunday. Are we to dismiss them or their work, because they believe in a god? Of course, not. So why do we dismiss skeptics who are not Atheists? Put simply, we have four possible quadrants in our skeptic / atheist matrix. Skeptical and Atheist, Skeptical and NOT Atheist, NOT Skeptical and Atheist, and finally, where most people unfortunately lie, NOT Skeptical and NOT Atheist.

Put even more simply, Skepticism is a method. Atheism is a position of belief,or non-belief, if you prefer. One may include the other, but they certainly do not require each other. You can be a Skeptic without being an Atheist. Sadly, many people disagree with that but the position does exist. Even worse, some people resort to non-skeptical arguments to belabor that point. See if you can spot the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy in Hemant Mehta’s piece on this very topic.

Skepticism requires testable evidence. What testable evidence is there for religion?
Can religion be discussed? Sure. Should it be a focus? If you’ll pardon the expression, “Hell No”. (Sorry. The Devil made me do it.) Talk about intercessory prayer studies. Talk about faith healing. Talk about the cop-out explanation that is, “god did it.” In fact, I encourage you to talk about any place where religion attempts to enter the scientific arena. But to just tear down religion as a topic in and of itself makes us look a bit silly, as skeptics. How do we apply the scientific method to religion? You can argue that Atheism is the Null Hypothesis, as Jen McCreight does, but without evidence either way, where do we take the discussion?

Jen also mentions the separation of Atheism and Skepticism as a PR move. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think that both of them could use a bit of PR assistance. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could bring more people to Atheism via Skepticism? Of course it would! But in order to do that, we have to start with the Skepticism, not the Atheism. Most people who practice any sort of debate, know that you have to lead people to a conclusion, not start with the conclusion, especially if someone is predisposed to the opposite conclusion. If every gathering of Skeptics turns into a denouncement of religion, as I have seen many of them do, there’s little chance of us creating any new Skeptics, let alone new Atheists.

In conclusion, I’ll just reiterate that yes, Atheism is a part of Skepticism, but it is a conclusion of Skepticism, and not the method of Skepticism. Since it leads you to the conclusion, the method is the more important of the two.

Thanks,
-David.

David is a science cheerleader, skeptic, atheist, musician, DBA, husband, father, and a few other things as well. If you like listening better than reading, check him out on CORI's official podcast, CORICast.
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5 comments

  1. Thanks for the wonderful post D. I agree with you for the most part. In regard to your question “Should Atheism be the focus of Skepticism?” I would say yes and no :) I think an individual skeptic should focus on what they know the most about and/or what interests them. If that is religion so be it, I think there is a place within skepticism for that. I think the problem is when atheism is the focus of a skeptic group. I am all for debunking religious claims, I’ve debunked stigmata, but there are so many other areas within our scope where we can make a real local difference, that I think get lost when our only focus is religion. I am personally sick of the conversation at skeptic events always coming back to religion, lets talk about science, psychics, aura photography, anti-vaxxers, etc.
    k1

    Comment by k1 on November 23, 2010 at 1:37 pm

  2. Good Post.

    I agree that skepticism is not, in practice, completely atheistic. However, taken to a logical conclusion by applying skepticism to all aspects of thought, atheism results. Only those who are not able to break the bonds of religious indoctrination can remain non-atheist and still be skeptical. It also calls into question the reliability of the skeptical evaluations of those who remain non-atheists. I say this as one who teaches Tai Chi but does not believe in chi (that does not mean that the students don’t but they will keep practicing which is the goal). Just as for “god” here is no evidence for chi. It is unfortunate that those who still “believe” can not be trusted to be reliably skeptical since those of us who are atheist and skeptical can use all the support we can get.

    Comment by Bob Tucker on December 31, 2010 at 3:14 am

  3. Bob,

    Thanks for your comment – I’m sorry it took so long to get it posted.

    I agree with your first point, but I think your second point, that skeptical observations by non-atheists are less reliable, is a bit off. Religious folks can be just as skeptical as atheists, they’re simply choosing to suspend their skepticism when it comes to rational thought. How they deal with the cognitive dissonance is beyond me, but they do. I’ve met many a religious believer that was a fine skeptic as well. I would certainly trust their observations. Many major scientists are religious as well, and their observations certainly hold up to scientific scrutiny. (Isaac Newton, anyone?)

    Thanks,
    -David.

    Comment by dmaxwell on January 13, 2011 at 10:18 pm

  4. Thanks for the good definitions of skepticism and the Venn diagram translation into text!
    Atheism isn’t a position of belief or non-belief, in my opinion, but a position of knowing that there is no evidence to support the existence of any gods, or of refusing to accept that there is no evidence of such divine or supernatural existence, preferring to be deluded for one’s personal reasons.
    Rick, from Dayton, OH

    Comment by rvroush on March 5, 2011 at 4:58 pm

  5. Actually, I think you’ve just described Agnosticism. Here’s a link that might help: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/atheist-vs-agnostic.html

    Comment by dmaxwell on March 21, 2011 at 5:28 am

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